After only three weeks, it is already clear that Israel, the most faithful ally of the US in this part of the world, cannot expect the same consideration for its security concerns as it received from President Trump, even in critical areas like the Golan Heights.
Blinken to CNN: ‘No’ to Golan Sovereignty
In an interview with CNN on Monday night, newly-appointed Secretary of State Anthony Blinken expressed support for Israel but refused to acknowledge Israel’s sovereignty over the crucial Golan Heights, a status that was recognized by the Trump’s administration in 2019.
“As a practical matter, the control of the Golan in that situation I think remains of real importance to Israel’s security,” Blinken told CNN. “Legal questions are something else and over time if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we look at, but we are nowhere near that.”
Israeli Response to Blinken
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded unequivocally to Blinken’s remarks:
“The Golan was and will remain part of Israel,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday while visiting a health clinic in Zarzir, near Nazareth. “With an agreement, without an agreement, we are not coming down from the Golan. It will remain a sovereign part of the State of Israel.”
Many of Netanyahu’s opponents in the upcoming election agreed with the PM. New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar tweeted that Israel, under former prime minister Menachem Begin, applied its sovereignty to the Golan Heights 40 years ago.
“The Golan will always be an inseparable part of Israel,” Sa’ar wrote. “A government led by me will strengthen and grow our settlement in the Golan Heights.”
The right-wing party Yamina stated that “the future of our land will be decided by Israel’s actions and not by words.”
“An Israeli government led by Naftali Bennett will act to strengthen our hold on the Golan Heights, Samaria, the [Jordan] Valley and Judea and the rest of the land,” the party stated.
‘The Religious Zionist Party led by MK Bezalel Smotrich used Blinken’s statement as an opportunity to attack New Hope and Yamina for not unequivocally endorsing Netanyahu.
“Whoever thinks that they can put their values aside even at the price of joining a left-wing government will find himself fighting not only for the recognition of the Golan Heights but against towns being evacuated,” the party said.
Blinken: Iran and the PA
A major element of the security situation in the Golan is Iranian expansionism into Syria and Lebanon. This expansionism was greatly enhanced by the lifting of sanctions by the Obama administration as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. President Trump reinstated some of these sanctions when he withdrew from the deal. President Biden is making moves to return to the JCPOA.
In the interview, Blinken emphasized that “if Iran returns to compliance with those obligations in the nuclear agreement, we would do the same thing, and then we would work with our allies and partners to try and build a longer and stronger agreement, and also bring in some of these other issues, like Iran’s missile program, like its destabilizing actions in the region, that need to be addressed as well.”
“The problem we face now,” he said, “is that in recent months, Iran has lifted one restraint after another… And the result is they are closer than they’ve been to having the capacity on short order to produce the solid material for a nuclear weapon.”
Other members of Biden’s team have said that the new administration will not revoke the policy however President Biden has not expressed his intention. He has already made several moves that are unfavorable towards Israel such as opening negotiations to reenter the JCPOA and reestablishing relations with the Palestinian Authority.
While praising the Trump-brokered Abraham accords that normalized relations between Israel and several of its Arab neighbors, Blinken insisted that peace in the region did not obviate negotiations with the PA.
“That doesn’t mean that the challenges of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians go away,” Blinken told CNN. “They don’t. They’re still there and they’re not going to miraculously disappear. So we need to engage on that, but in the first instance, the parties in question need to engage on that.”
The signing of the Abraham Accords highlighted the flaw in the conventional approach to US policy concerning the region based on the belief that the key to peace in the region was dependent on an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. After the PA broke off relations with the US and refused to negotiate directly with Israel, President Trump negotiated peace between Israel and Bahrain, the UAE, Sudan, Morocco, Kosovo, and Serbia.
CNN asked Blinken whether Biden would agree to a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem but the Secretary of State refused to answer. The “two-state solution”, the creation of a Palestinian entity inside the borders of Israel that is ethnically cleansed of Jews, is predicated on its capital being situated in Jerusalem, specifically on Judaism’s holiest site; the Temple Mount.
In the CNN interview, Blinken confirmed that Biden has yet to speak directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Secy. of State Antony Blinken on whether the US will continue to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights: “Leaving aside the legalities of that question, as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security as long as Assad is in power in Syria” pic.twitter.com/yHQBr7FvgP
— The Situation Room (@CNNSitRoom) February 9, 2021
“I’m sure that they’ll have occasion to speak in the near future,” Blinken said.
The Israeli Golan Heights comprise approximately 440 square miles. In addition to its strategic military importance, the Golan Heights is an important water resource, supplying 15 percent of Israel’s water. There are approximately 20,000 Israelis living in the Golan. An additional 20,000 residents, mostly Druze, also live in the region.
Israel suffered from artillery attacks targeting civilian settlements in the Galilee region for years along with Syrian-aided attacks by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The decision to conquer the Golan came after Syria began instituting a plan to divert most of the water flowing into the Sea of Galilee, denying Israel a major water source in contravention of international agreements. Israel conquered the Golan in the defensive 1967 Six-Day War.
During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Syrian forces overran much of the southern Golan, before being pushed back by an Israeli counterattack. Israel and Syria signed a ceasefire agreement in 1974 that left almost all the Heights in Israeli hands. In 1981, Israel passed the Golan Heights Law, effectively annexing the Golan Heights. Ironically, Israel has ruled over the Golan for more than twice as long as the Syrian government.